The U.S. national team is entering a virtual must-win World Cup qualifier in less-than-ideal circumstances. A slew of players are injured, a couple more are suspended, and whatever coach Bruce Arena had originally planned isn’t going to happen.
Therefore, the Americans are going to need some players to step up, grab the game by the scruff of the neck and carry the USMNT to victory. Here are the guys who can – and should be – the USMNT’s impact players:
The American striker pool took a big hit with the injury of Wood and now it looks like Jordan Morris’ fitness is a question mark. That means goal-scoring is seemingly all up to Altidore now. It could prove to be a tough scenario for the Toronto FC target man – Arena may abandon a two-striker system and start Altidore alone up top, which would pull Altidore out of his comfort zone.
But Altidore needs to be dynamic, aggressive and finish his chances, regardless of who plays around him. To date, Altidore has 16 goals in 33 World Cup qualifier appearances, so he has a proven track record of stepping up.
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His age has ceased being the talking point in favor of his quality, but this may be the most important USMNT match the 18-year-old has ever played to date. With the Americans last in their World Cup qualifying group, the stakes couldn’t be higher, and this will be Pulisic’s biggest opportunity to step up yet.
We don’t know yet if Pulisic will start on the wing or centrally, but we do know Pulisic can make an impact from anywhere in the midfield. All he needs to do is what he’s done for Borussia Dortmund all season: Add creativity and unpredictability to the attack with smart runs, whether cutting inside or to the end line, and get the ball in front of goal.
He’s another player that could start in many positions, but it’s a safe bet he will start on the left wing. The right-footed Nagbe can be deadly from the left flank by cutting inside and slipping a perfect final pass or taking a shot.
What Arena and the USMNT need from him is a killer instinct that Nagbe doesn’t always have. If there’s been anything to nitpick in Nagbe’s game, it’s continually been that he isn’t selfish enough – he looks for a safe pass when he can take a shot, and doesn’t always try to go at defenders off the dribble, even though he can. If Nagbe plays with confidence and aggression, his presence ought to boost the USMNT.
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He’s still a question mark for the Americans, but if he doesn’t start, we shouldn’t assume he won’t play. That’s because the most enticing role for the youngster is off the bench, where his speed can take advantage of tired legs on defense. Morris is very good at racing in behind back lines, and his ability to chase down direct balls and hold the ball up is also helpful.
The question now is whether Morris will be able to see any minutes on the field, and if he does, will he be healthy enough (and confident enough) to go full throttle? If he can play the way he has been for the Seattle Sounders so far this season, he can make a huge impact off the bench.
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It’s been years since the World Cup in Brazil, but fans haven’t stopped calling Howard “the Secretary of Defense.” Well, the USMNT may need a bit of that from the goalkeeper. That’s because the back line is an area of concern right now. The USMNT is on what looks like their fifth choice at right back. However Arena decides to deal with it, there is going to be disruption in defense. There’s a good chance Howard may need to come up with a spectacular save, or maybe more, to keep the USMNT from conceding.
The Americans don’t have any goalkeeper options behind Howard that look like a particularly close second – Brad Guzan is off the roster to be with his wife for the birth of their child, Nick Rimando has exactly zero World Cup qualifier caps, and David Bingham recently allowed one of the worst howlers we’ve seen in a while. Howard has to step up and be a rock in goal because the USMNT has no real choice but to count in him.